Residents urged to exercise caution when shopping online from local retailers

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Online retailers in Antigua and Barbuda are being reminded that, even though they do not operate physical stores, their operations are still governed by the country’s Sale of Goods Act (Photo courtesy Shop Deel)

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By Orville Williams

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While doing his last minute back-to-school shopping, *Michael* struggles to find a pair of shoes for his son at multiple stores in St John’s. However, he is in luck, as *BuyLocalAntigua* – a local online retailer – has the brand he has been searching for, in the perfect size.

Michael orders the pair of shoes and agrees on a date for collection and payment with the seller. After meeting up with the seller and taking a quick glance at the pair of shoes in the box, Michael hands the money over and heads home feeling accomplished.

When his son *Jason* tries the shoes on and takes a few steps to feel them out, the entire sole of the right foot falls out, leaving both Michael and Jason stunned.

Michael had paid EC$500 for the pair of shoes – more than twice the EC$200 he had initially budgeted, as it was last-minute and the shoes were in great demand – but the situation could be fixed with a refund or exchange, at least that’s what he thought.

Michael realized shortly after though, that he had no way to contact the seller besides the textbox on their website. He sent multiple messages to the seller through that textbox, but all were ignored. He also did not receive a receipt with any sort of alternate contact information, so he was essentially out of a pair of shoes for his son and out of the EC$500 he paid for the obviously defective pair.

This story, though fictional, is strikingly similar to some complaints made about online transactions here in Antigua and Barbuda in the past, and residents are being warned to be cautious when making these kinds of transactions.

The online marketplace has become a big draw for retailers looking to avoid overheads such as rent and utilities, and while many take advantage of the opportunity by providing exceptional service, others take advantage by flouting the rules that govern such transactions.

In the case of the physical stores, seeking and getting redress is often a far less complicated matter, as receipts are usually provided, customers can always revisit the stores to make a formal complaint or request, and the retailers can easily be identified by the authorities if there is contention over any request for redress.

However, the fact that these online retailers have no fixed base of operations makes it much harder for consumers who experience these types of headaches to get the requisite redress.

Amid an increase in retail activity toward the new school year, spokesperson for the Prices and Consumer Affairs Division, Jo-Ann Peters, says shoppers must be vigilant to ensure they do not get ripped off.

“What we have realized is that for most of these online sales, payments are done in person and they’re most often cash transactions. So, there is a face-to-face meeting for the delivery of the goods and for payment to be made.

“Consumers should be mindful that they need to get as much information as possible regarding the seller – their correct name, a contact number etc – [and] take the time to examine the item before you hand over your money.

“It’s just as if you’re going to a brick-and-mortar store to conduct the sale…so, before you hand over your money, ensure that the item is of good quality [and that] there are no defects as much as you can see.

“Yes, we know that with some items it’s only when they’re in use you identify the defects, [but inspect as best as possible],” the spokeswoman advised.

The streets of St John’s were crowded in recent days, as parents – many with their children in tow – tried to complete their last minute shopping ahead of the first day of school yesterday.

A significant amount of retail activity is also likely to be taking place online, especially as many physical stores are short of certain items.

Though not all online retailers can be accused or found guilty of duping their customers, they were collectively given some important advice, with Peters reminding that there is no difference between online and in-person sales as far as the law is concerned, which means all retailers should abide by the rules in place.

“Although the sales are being conducted online, they still fall under the Sale of Goods Act, and so we expect the sales to be conducted in accordance with the act – meaning that the items should be of merchantable quality, they should be fit for purpose [and] they should be as described.

“Consumers should [also] get a receipt so that, should they need to enter the redress process, they can safely and easily do so,” she said.

There may come a time when stricter measures need to be taken to protect local consumers who patronize the local online marketplace, but for now, the laws on the country’s books should provide sufficient protection.

“For those who are [shopping] online in the local marketplace, yes they do fall under our jurisdiction, and if there are issues, they can seek redress through our office,” Peters added.

Persons looking to lodge formal complaints about sales transactions can contact the Prices and Consumer Affairs Division at its office on the corner of Redcliffe Street and Corn Alley, by calling 462-4347 or emailing the division at [email protected]

*Fictional names and/or titles used.

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